Skip to Content
Grandparents with grandchildren symbolizing how planning your wills and estate can benefit the next generation.
Wills and estate planning

What is a living will?

A living will allows you to specify healthcare directives, such as life support and organ donation, before you become incapacitated and cannot make the decisions later on.

A living will is a critical piece of the estate planning puzzle. This article presents a living will definition that can help you better understand the differences between a last will and testament and a living will.

When it comes to estate planning, most people understand that a will, sometimes called a “last will and testament,” is a document that states your final wishes after your death. By having a will, the court can ensure that your instructions are carried out after you die. Without a will, it's the courts who will make these important decisions for you. So what's a living will?

Living will definition

A living will (also known as an advance medical directive) is a document that allows you to make decisions about your medical care and treatment in the event you become severely ill and are being kept alive by life support systems. It is very different than a last will and testament, that is meant to distribute property to your beneficiaries, specify your last wishes, and appoint guardians for minor children. A living will allows you to specify healthcare directives for your care in advance, such as whether or not you wish to have life support or if you want to specify organ donation.

A living will comes into the picture while you're still alive, voicing your wishes in the event you are no longer able to make healthcare decisions for yourself. For example, if you were to suffer a life-threatening injury or became incapacitated as a result of a terminal illness, the decisions about your care will be carried out according to your wishes, as long as there is a living will. Without one, the decision falls into the hands of your spouse, family members, or other third parties.

Making your living will

Most people look to an estate planning attorney to create their living wills. This is often the preferable way to go, primarily because estate planning attorneys understand the specific laws in your state. They can also help answer questions you may have and represent you in the event of a contested will.

If you want to know how to create a living will and decide to prepare your own, you will want to be sure you are following your state's requirements and are using the proper forms. Living will forms can be found at:

  • Local hospitals
  • Senior centers and care centers
  • Your state's medical association
  • The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

You can also make a living will and a health care power of attorney using one of the many online legal websites or with a variety of software programs. These types of programs can easily guide you on how to construct a living will, making it easy to create a living will on your own. Just remember that your document, when completed, will need to be signed, witnessed, and maybe even notarized in order to be legally enforceable.

What to put in your living will

A living will leaves written instructions as to how you want certain types of care to be given or even not to be given. For example, many people include a do not resuscitate or DNR order in their living wills because they don't wish to be kept alive on a ventilator. Note that your state specific form will request your feelings about various types of care that may be difficult to think about or even consider. They may include having you make decisions about:

  • Providing food and water intravenously if you are unconscious
  • Life-prolonging medical care such as transfusions, CPR, dialysis, use of a respirator, and even life prolonging surgeries
  • Palliative care (reducing pain without curing) if you choose to forego life-prolonging treatments

Appointing a living will agent

While your living will states your healthcare wishes, it is your living will agent that ensures those wishes are carried out. For this reason, selecting your living will agent is very important. In nearly every state, this person must be a legal adult and act in accordance with your living will's instructions. It's important to note that your living will agent isn't making your decisions for you, but they're to make certain that your wishes are carried out as you directed.

Consider using a living will if:

  • You want to specify your wishes, ensuring they are carried out
  • You are facing the possibility of surgery or a hospitalization
  • You want to complete your estate plan
  • You have been diagnosed with a progressive and terminal condition

For more information on estate planning, last will and testaments, and living wills, visit the Protective Learning Center.



Arrows linking indicating relationship

Related Articles

An older couple embraces while gazing off into the distance

Estate planning basics: Leaving a gift of charity after you're gone

Learn more
Older woman laughing with daughter

What is final expense insurance?

Learn more
A man and woman are engaged in a conversation in an office setting

Durable power of attorney: Who to choose?

Learn more

All Learning Center articles are general summaries that can be used when considering your financial future at various life stages. The information presented is for educational purposes and is meant to supplement other information specific to your situation. It is not intended as investment advice and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Protective Life or its subsidiaries.

Learning Center articles may describe services and financial products not offered by Protective Life or its subsidiaries. Descriptions of financial products contained in Learning Center articles are not intended to represent those offered by Protective Life or its subsidiaries.

Neither Protective Life nor its representatives offer legal or tax advice. We encourage you to consult with your financial adviser and legal or tax adviser regarding your individual situations before making investment, social security, retirement planning, and tax-related decisions. For information about Protective Life and its products and services, visit

Companies and organizations linked from Learning Center articles have no affiliation with Protective Life or its subsidiaries.